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The Catholic Church’s Marital Problems

Aaron Schrank |
May 6, 2013 | 4:19 p.m. PDT


 Christus Vincit via Flickr Creative Commons
Christus Vincit via Flickr Creative Commons
Just days after Oliver Vietor’s wife gave birth to their sixth child, Vietor became a father of a different sort—when he was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. Now a full-fledged clergyman in a Phoenix parish, Vietor is one of about 80 married but Pope-approved priests in the United States. He’s a living, breathing exception to the Vatican’s 1,500-year-old celibacy rule and—some hope—a sign of what’s to come. 

In the two months since the election of Pope Francis, Church watchers have anxiously analyzed the new pontiff’s every word and action, looking for hints of reform on hot-button issues. Among them: priestly celibacy requirements—the elimination of which many tout as something of a cure-all for the Church’s problems, including its priest shortage and ongoing sexual abuse scandals. 

According to a Pew survey of U.S. Catholics taken after Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, 58 percent of parishioners favored the new Pope allowing priests to marry. Pope Francis’ past comments firmly support mandatory celibacy, but suggest a willingness to discuss the issue. Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine, which means, as Pope Francis—then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio—said in a 2012 interview: “It can change.”

Before the papal conclave, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland called for a reexamination of the Church’s celibacy policy. Three days later, he resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. In March, 21 Catholic members of British Parliament sent Pope Francis a letter, urging him to relax celibacy rules for priests—pointing to married, ex-Protestant converts admitted to the Catholic priesthood as precedent.

A former Episcopalian priest, Father Vietor is one of these converts, ushered into the Church through a loophole Pope John Paul II established in 1980 called “pastoral provision.” While Vietor is glad to be the exception, he’s not looking to change to change the rule. 

“Having a celibate priesthood, there’s lots of benefits to it and lots of meaning behind it,” Vietor said. “It’s a tremendous gift that men make to the Lord to give their whole lives to serve him. Without having a family and that type of responsibility, they’re free to serve in a complete and total way.”

But Vietor points out that, in addition to spiritual motives, there are practical reasons to keep things as is.

“What’s the difference between a married priest and a celibate priest?” he asked, recalling a joke he’d heard. The answer, Vietor said, “About $30,000.”

“I have to support a family and the costs associated with it,” he said. “All my children are in school still. I have to pay the mortgage. I can’t move as easily. That’s not true for celibate priests. What happens when a married priest dies? Is the Church now going to be responsible for his family?”

Required celibacy is not part of the tradition of Eastern Catholic Churches, which are also subject to the Pope’s authority. In these churches, married men are allowed to become priests, though priests cannot marry after being ordained. 

Many in the Western Church point to dwindling clerical ranks as reason to ease celibacy requirements. The number of priests in the U.S. fell from more than 58,000 in 1965 to 39,000 in 2012, according to a Georgetown survey. The number of Catholic seminarians dropped by more than 90 percent—from a peak of 49,000 in 1965 to less than 4,000 today. 

“Some say, with a certain pragmatism, that we are losing manpower,” then-Bergoglio said last year. “If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option.”

Scandals among high-profile Catholic clergy have raised questions about celibacy standards and have heightened the debate. Last year, Los Angeles’ auxiliary bishop Gabino Zavala resigned after admitting he was the father of two teenage children. In 2009, Florida priest and media personality Alberto Cutie resigned after he was revealed to have been in a romantic relationship. He later married the woman involved and became an Episcopal priest. 

With experiences on both side of clerical celibacy, Cutie says he sees no value in the discipline.

“You live kind of in a bubble rather than the real world, when you’re celibate,” Cutie says. “You haven’t had to deal with changing diapers at 3 or 4 in the morning. You haven’t had to deal with the same struggles everyone else is dealing with.”

Despite the push for reform, most who feel called to the priesthood continue to see celibacy as a part of that call. 

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Steve Marshall, a seminarian at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif. “I think it’s noble. You’re setting aside the prospect of your own family to care for the family of God.”

Marshall, 24, came to the priesthood two years ago, after he graduated film school with no job prospects and his girlfriend left him. He’s willing to give up the intimacy of marriage and the joys of fatherhood because he believes it will allow him to be a more effective minister.

“I believe that some people are made capable of celibacy,” said Marshall. “I’m not sure that I’m one of those people, but I’m willing to investigate to see if I am. Celibacy is a freedom to love anyone who needs it. If you have your own family and a parish family, one of them is going to have to get the lesser side of the attention.”

But this notion that priests can’t aptly father a family and father their flock, while crucial to the defense of the Church’s celibacy policy, is being put to the test by the very presence of men like Oliver Vietor. 

“Some people do express to me that the fact that I’m married and have a family just helps them to identify with me and, they think, helps me to identify with them,” said Vietor. “I can speak to family issues and about trying to live a faithful life in the midst of all that chaos from firsthand experience. People like that.”


Reach Contributor Aaron Schrank here.


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Anonymous (not verified) on May 15, 2013 12:19 AM

I have no doubt some men are drawn to the priesthood by the opportunity to make a likelong sacrifice that denotes their commitment to their Church. However, I could not agree more that churchgoers identify better with a leader who shares similar experiences and is able to draw from them in giving spiritual counsel.

I believe the Church should allow men who are already married to become priests. This would involve a committment just as important as celibacy, which is leading the congregation by example. As for some of the other issues described in the article on the burdens of a married priest's family: Children could attend Catholic schools free of charge, in the same way children of faculty members do. Financial issues regarding the situation of a family in case of death could be resolved through life insurance, and priests could have a pension plan in case of incapacity.

I also believe women should be allowed to become priests. So many women are already active in the Church, it seems a logical step and is not contrary to any Church teachings. However, I think it is illogical to expect the Catholic Church to change its position on homosexuality. Catholicism is a private organization, and as such can decide on its own rules and policies. While homosexuals are welcome into congregations along with everyone else who has ever contravened the Bible, this does not mean the Church should welcome homosexual priests. In the same way it should not welcome divorced priests, or allow priests to retain their positions if they do not exhibit exemplary behavior. Priest sex scandal? Back to the pews!

Thomas A. Szyszkiewcz (not verified) on May 7, 2013 10:01 AM

David Sadtler, the seminaries are empty? So is that why the Archdiocese of St. Louis just had to build an addition onto their seminary? And the North American College in Rome is building onto theirs? And the Archdiocese of Denver reopened theirs? And the Diocese of Lincoln started their own? I could go on, but I think the point is made.

While Aaron Schrank's stats are technically correct, the number of seminarians is climbing from the low it reached a few years ago, and the number of priests, both in the U.S. and around the world, is also rising. And celibacy is actually one of the things attracting the new seminarians; they want to be completely at the service of the Church. They understand that having a family will distract them from that. And so do I. If I end up in the hospital at 3:00 in the morning in danger of dying, I don't want a call to my parish priest asking him to come anoint me answered with, "Oh sorry, I can't make it. My kid's got stomach flu."

David Sadtler (not verified) on May 7, 2013 8:57 AM

The problem is that they simply cannot bring themselves to admit they are wrong.The seminaries are empty. No priests equals no church. To survive the Church must cease requiring celibacy, denying gay priests, and admit women to the priesthood. And do 22 other things too. http://amzn.to/YHfNiK